Exhibition | Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on October 20, 2013

From the exhibition press release:

Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India From the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection
Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., 19 October 2013 — 5 January 2014


Four Scenes from India. After Jacob van Meurs (ca. 1619–before 1680). Copperplate engraving with etching on paper. From a French copy of Pieter van der Aa (1659–1733), La Galerie Agréable du Monde (The Pleasurable Gallery of the World),vol. 19: Persia, Mogol, Chine, Tartaria (Leyden: Pieter van der Aa, ca. 1725). Robert J. Del Bontà collection, E1431.

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Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India From the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, presents 50 printed works that trace European and American documentation of Indian ascetics, deities and religious ceremony.

As global travel boomed from the 16th to the 20th century, Europeans and Americans became increasingly fascinated with Indian culture. Merchants, missionaries and soldiers alike documented their encounters in India and foreign lands through detailed texts and illustrations. These accounts—regularly edited, amended and reprinted in publications as varied as atlases, trading cards, memoirs and magazines—became the paradigm for all that Europeans and Americans found strange, exotic, repulsive or remarkable in India.


“Hindoo devottees of the Gosannee & Jetty tribes,” James Shury, after James Forbes (1749–1819). Drawn by James Forbes, 1780, and published by White, Cochrane & Co., June 1812. Engraving with etching on paper. From an English copy of James Forbes, Oriental Memoirs, vol. 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1834).

Created using a wide variety of techniques, such as engraving, aquatint, lithography and photogravure, these prints demonstrate how perceptions of Indian culture shifted through the centuries, from the European Enlightenment to the period of colonial expansion and into modernity.

“As a collector, Del Bontà not only pays immense attention to the subjects that captivated Europeans and Americans, but also to the multiple versions of popular prints as they travelled across countries, languages and time,” said Holly Shaffer, guest curator and Yale University doctoral candidate. “His collection allows scholars to trace how Europeans and Americans learned about India, and reminds us to always question the ‘truth-value’ of images that often have a very long train to their visual history.”

The spread of images represented in Strange and Wondrous led to broader knowledge and interest in Indian culture—but also to the creation and proliferation of negative stereotypes. Ascetics, or religious figures (often termed “yogis and “fakirs”), with their otherworldly, naked appearance and austere practices, were depicted as supernatural beings, devout penitents, militants, tricksters and beggars. Religious ceremonies, such as swinging from hooks (charak puja), were often interpreted in a Christian framework, rather than a Hindu one, leading to misconceptions of devotees as sinners and fanatics. Deities such as the Hindu god Shiva were cataloged as lovers and drug users feeding generalizations of India as a sensual, spiritual land.

American publications added another layer of satire to their interpretation of exotic cultural practices. A 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post illustrated by Norman Rockwell shows the beloved World War II character Willie Gillis outwitting an Indian ascetic with the children’s game “cat’s cradle,” a visual pun of the infamous “Indian rope trick.” Here an American GI has duped the once-powerful Indian yogi, and while it is perhaps a nod to American soldiers’ wily abilities during wartime, the stereotype of India remains intact.

Strange and Wondrous will be on view in conjunction with Yoga: The Art of Transformation—the world’s first exhibition on the art of yoga—also at the Sackler Gallery.

The 50 works on view in Strange and Wondrous are part of Del Bontà’s bequest of 100 printed works to the Freer and Sackler archives. The collection will be a resource for scholars and educators to evaluate and understand early European and American perspectives of Indian culture through print. Del Bontà—a polymath scholar, curator, collector and jeweler—began to collect prints related to India while completing his doctorate in South Asian art history at the University of Michigan in the 1970s. His extensive collection includes more than 2,000 loose prints and thousands more bound within books, spanning genres from Indian calendar prints, ephemera, painting and sculpture to British Raj-era publications and subjects such as ornament, flora and fauna, Indian ascetics, deities and religious ceremony.

Exhibition | Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on October 20, 2013

From the exhibition press release:

Yoga: The Art of Transformation
Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., 19 October 2013 — 26 January 2014
San Francisco Asian Art Museum, 21 February — 25 May 2014
Cleveland Museum of Art, 22 June — 7 September 2014


Krishna Vishvarupa (detail), ca. 1740. India, Himachal Pradesh, Bilaspur. Collection of Catherine and Ralph Benkaim.

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Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the first exhibi­tion about the visual history of yoga explores yoga’s rich diversity and historical transformations during the past 2,000 years.

On view through January 26, 2014, The Art of Transformation examines yoga’s fascinating meanings and histories through more than 130 objects from 25 museums and private collections in India, Europe and the U.S. Highlights include three monumental stone yogini goddesses from a 10th-century south Indian temple, reunited for the first time, 10 folios from the first illustrated compilation of asanas (yogic postures) making their U.S. debut, and a Thomas Edison film, Hindoo Fakir (1906), the first movie produced about India.

“This exhibition looks at yoga’s ancient roots, and how people have been trying to master body and spirit for millennia,” said Julian Raby, The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. “By applying new scholarship to both rarely seen artworks and recognized masterpieces, we’re able to shed light on practices that evolved over time—from yoga’s ancient origins to its more modern emergence in India, which set the stage for today’s global phenomenon.

9781588344595_p0_v2_s600A free public festival, Diwali and the Art of Yoga, Saturday, October 26, will mark both the opening of the exhibition and Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. Visitors can discover exhibition highlights through spotlight tours, play games from across Asia, attempt intricate rangoli (rice powder) drawings and make their own yoga-inspired art in hands-on workshops. Indian classical musician K. Sridhar will demonstrate the yoga of sound, and storyteller Louise Omoto Kessel will share tales of Indian deities. Free yoga classes will be offered throughout, and the day will conclude with a traditional lamp-lighting ceremony and a classical Indian music concert.

In conjunction with The Art of Transformation, the Freer and Sackler galleries will also host Yoga and Visual Culture, a free interdisciplinary symposium for scholars and yoga enthusiasts November 21–23. Seventeen scholars from a range of disciplines will present cutting-edge research on diverse aspects of yoga’s visual culture, organized around such topics as “Yoga and Place” and “Yoga and Print Culture.” A full schedule and registration is available at asia.si.edu/events/yoga-symposium/.

Yoga classes in the galleries will be offered through “Art in Context,” an interactive 90-minute workshop combining tours of the exhibition with the practice of yoga. Led by a teaching team of a museum docent and guest yoga teachers, the workshops will be held on Wednesdays and Sundays throughout the exhibition, with special sessions offered for ages 50-plus, teens and families. Advance registration is required, and visitors can find a full schedule at asia.si.edu/events/workshops.asp.

These programs are made possible in part due to the Smithsonian’s first major crowdfunding campaign, “Together We’re One.” Launched in May 2013, the campaign raised more than $174,000 over 6 weeks to support public programs, yoga classes in the galleries, and an exhibition catalogue, as well as the behind—the—scenes aspects of the exhibition. Campaign donors and exhibition ambassadors, called “Yoga Messengers,” are invited to be special guests during the October 26 “Art of Yoga” festival, and will be featured in exhibition signage.

Following its Washington, D.C., debut, The Art of Transformation will travel to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Support for the exhibition is provided by the Friends of the Freer|Sackler, Whole Foods Market, Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, the Alec Baldwin Foundation, the Ebrahimi Family Foundation, IndiaTourism, Catherine Glynn Benkaim, media partner Yoga Journal, and “Together We’re One”  donors.


Anatomical Body, 18th century, India, Gujarat (Wellcome Library, London, Asian Collections, MS Indic Delta 74).

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Debra Diamond, ed., Yoga: The Art of Transformation (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2013), 360 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1588344595, $55.

An exploration of yoga’s meanings and transformations over time; the discipline’s goals of spiritual enlightenment, worldly power, and health and well-being; and the beauty and profundity of Indian art.

Debra Diamond is Associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Her exhibition catalogue for Garden and Cosmos (fall 2008) received two major awards for scholarship: the College Art Association’s Alfred H. Barr award and the Smithsonian Secretary’s Award for Research. She has published on yoga imagery, new methods in Indian art history, contemporary Asian art, and various aspects of the Freer|Sackler collections.

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